Montclair Art Museum
Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America during the Twentieth Century
by Gail Stavitsky, Ph.D., Chief Curator
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The Encaustic Art Revival of the 1980s and 1990s / Themes and Concerns: The Human Body
The explosion of interest in the encaustic medium since 1980 is evidenced by the growing number of artists who have discovered its unique properties. Many of them are based in the New York City area. Over 200 submissions of works were received by the author to consider for inclusion in Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America. The current international interest in encaustic can be attributed in part to the greater availability of information and supplies. In the early 1980s painter Richard Frumess took a part-lime job at Torch Art Supplies and began to develop milling methods, formulas, and new encaustic colors. He started R & F Encaustics in his Brooklyn studio in 1987 after Torch went out of business. Now located in Kingston, New York and known as R & F Handmade Paints, this company is regarded as the leading manufacturer of encaustic paints in the world The R & F factory includes a gallery space with regular exhibitions of encaustic art. An annual newsletter, website, and workshops are also offered in response to the fact that encaustic technique is still rarely offered in schools and only discussed in abbreviated form in manuals. Another significant source of information and supplies is the Rochester-based company Enkaustikos! Wax Art Supplies, founded in 1990 by Ann Huffman who wrote a technical manual in 1991 and developed a new line of paints and customized tools to make the medium more accessible.
Furthermore, several gallery and cultural center exhibitions have explored the growing, diverse use of wax and encaustic by contemporary artists. Among these were shows at the New York galleries Tibor De Nagy in 1991 and Nora Haime in 1995. In 1992 the Pale Alto Cultural Center presented Contemporary Uses of Wax & Encaustic, a selection of mostly West Coast artists. The show's curator Signe Mayfield stated in an accompanying brochure that artists today have selected this evocative medium "to represent skin, water, elusive memory, every day objects, layers of history, and marble-like surfaces." In 1998 Leah Stoddard curated House of Wax for the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati which was focused primarily upon the metaphorical attributes of wax as a primordial, skin-like substance able "to evoke many things at once: sensations, emotions, memories, history, the passage of time." She compared the contemporary revival of organic wax-based mediums in the midst of a highly technological society to the 1960s and 1970s when process-oriented artists like Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, and Richard Serra began to use soft, natural materials such as rubber and felt in response to the prefabricated, industrial mediums of Minimalist sculpture.
A vast array of spiritual, philosophical, environmental and painterly concerns are conveyed by the work of artists working with encaustic at the end of the twentieth century. Today Judith Cotton, Mia Westerlund Roosen, Byron Kim, and many others work with the richly textured, flesh-like quality of the medium to create metaphors for the human body -- a pervasive theme of contemporary art. During an era profoundly affected by AIDS, social injustice, sexism, and homophobia, the emergence of postmodern and feminist thinking has transformed the body from an object of delectation to a highly charged locus for issues of personal identity, gender politics, ethnicity, and mortality. The distinctive presence of the body in Jasper Johns's work has been recently discussed as highly influential in this regard.
The subject of the human body in Johns's work has been connected to the increasingly subjective, self-revealing direction of his art in later years as he has explored themes of mortality and the passage of time in such works as Fall from The Seasons series.  Furthermore, Johns's paint handling has become more expressive as he has dropped his reserve. Having moved away from the short, discrete brushmarks of his earlier encaustic work, Johns applies heat beyond a normal degree to encourage melting, dripping, and running of the paint. In 1978 Johns traveled to Japan and brought back small kimono irons. He now uses two of them for burning in (one keeps hot while the other cools) as well as a Master heat gun. A small Coming Ware hot plate is used for heating his mixture of beeswax, damar, oil, and dry pigments.
Johns continues to enjoy the versatility of encaustic and the challenge of reestablishing a painting that is "lost and has to be recovered." He contrasts the property of encaustic being solid or liquid at any time as opposed to the relatively static nature of oil. Since the 1970s, Johns has deliberately juxtaposed these mediums in separate panels in such works as Corpse and Mirror (1974). In contrast to the serenely assertive crosshatches to the left, the mirror image in encaustic incorporates newsprint, painterly smudges, a large X, and the prominent outline of an iron, all of which have been interpreted as suggesting the introduction of feelings, content, and vulnerability of the real world. Thus by juxtaposing oil and encaustic, Johns wishes to draw attention to the relationship of image to medium and to prompt questions regarding the differences and similarities of the variations.
In encaustic works of the '70s and beyond such as Dutch Wives (1975), Weeping Women (1975), and The Seasons series (1985-86), Johns has suggested aspects of the human body or presence. The iron imprints in Weeping Women have been compared to the parts of a body pressed against paper in Johns' skin drawings of 1973-75, as if a figure is trapped in the crosshatch webbing. The specific equation of encaustic with skin in Johns's work can be found in such earlier works as Watchman and According to What of 1964. Both contain a body part cast with the same beeswax that Johns uses for his encaustic paintings. Johns continued this practice of incorporating cast wax body fragments in more recent encaustic paintings as In the Studio and Perilous Night (both 1982). However, in Fall and the other works of The Seasons series, Johns has included a traced, full body shadow of himself: Split in two and cropped, the life-size shadow is a slightly incomplete decoy, as if to suggest the privacy and vulnerability of the human condition as well as the notion of Fall as a time of transition. This interpretation is reinforced by the oft-discussed, portentous imagery of Fall; the broken ladder, snapped rope and falling paintings, tumbling Ohr pots, descending arm, bleak sky, as well as the Swiss avalanche warning sign with a skull and crossbones.  Johns's highly personal adaptation of an age-old theme -- the cycle of life -- is an all-encompassing statement reflecting both the history of art and a profound awareness of the universal human plight
Like Johns, Nash Hyon has employed the encaustic medium in her evocations of the fragility of life. In 1992 her career as a graphic artist, photographer, and decorative painter came to an abrupt halt when her husband suddenly died of cancer. Grappling with complex issues of death and loss, Hyon turned from photography to painting in order to visually express the emotional upheaval that had subsumed her life. As an admirer of Johns's early work she knew of encaustic and began to experiment with it after a 1994 trip to Italy where she studied frescoes and other ancient techniques.
As a process-oriented painter Hyon had been using oil paint with various additives and unconventional tools. Nevertheless, she was dissatisfied with the type of surface quality achieved as well as the difficulty of combining the oil with collage elements. With encaustic, her method of scraping, layering, remelting, blowing, and scratching allowed her to create a surface that has an archaeological quality, expressing the history of the process and the passage of time. The transparent wax is painted over an underpainting that becomes the pentimenti, a metaphor for the many layers of remembered experiences which fade over time.
Mercy is part of a series entitled "You're not Here," created as a eulogy to her husband Ty, that explores "medical policies/politics, the isolation and fragmentation of the body during illness, and the mutability of memory." Wishing to express her feelings:about the need to improve such modern medical practices as pain management, Hyon developed the image of a human spinal column that was "computer manipulated, altered, isolated, and stretched to the breaking point." She chose a reductive, white palette to reflect medical imaging techniques (X-rays) and photography (in homage to Ty who was a photographer). The word "Morphine" was stenciled in letters running backwards, suggesting the inefficacy of this pain killer. For Hyon, encaustic was the best medium with which to create a seductive surface that would prompt an emotional response and reflection upon an issue that touches everyone. She regards encaustic as a medium "transformed through fire....a mystical alchemical type of material."
Judith Cotton regards the encaustic work of Jasper Johns as singularly important in terms of` "the quality of his stroke, the movement from opaque to semi-transparent [and] his use of color" which "brought new life to paint" and "rewards endless looking." Cotton also appreciates the early works of Brice Marden, the luminous, flat colors and delicately rendered botanical life of Pompeiian wall paintings, and the Fayum portraits with their Egyptian qualities of frontality and stillness. She began to work in encaustic in 1990-1991 when she was ill with Lyme Disease and facing a temporary physical challenge of being able to stand only for brief periods. By having small panels set up for her, Cotton could build a big picture without physical strain. Furthermore, the transitions between panels "invited disjunction and relationship to occur simultaneously."
By 1993, when she created Transit, Cotton was able to enter a swimming pool again and had begun to relearn the motion of swimming. Transit is thus part of a series of works based on the subject of the swimmer. The themes of the bather; marine lift, and vegetation had already been present in Cotton's work, inspired by her experiences of her native continent, Australia. Now, however, the nude bather (associated with Cézanne and Matisse) is shown in a state of action submerged in the fluidity of rippling water that is suggested by the scoring of thick, distinct layers of warm encaustic with a knife -- "like light refracting on water and also the breaking of physical boundaries." According to Cotton, encaustic was a wonderful medium for rendering water with its intensely deep, high-keyed, rich color "that invites one to submerge" and surrender the self to the work to be done."  The contradictory aspects of encaustic especially appeal to Cotton. Both translucent and opaque, it can, in her words, "have a distancing blankness or be peeled open to bring the viewer close." The quality of an encaustic color surface is "deep and lush -- yet reductive, hot and cold, soft and hard, immediate and enduring." Cotton regards encaustic as a subtle, yet rigorous medium demanding intense focus, with all options open and in play at once as different color layers are revealed and fused with a heat source. This uniquely organic engagement with encaustic -- a fusion of artist, medium, surface, and intent -- suits Cotton's personality as an artist. She regards encaustic as a metaphorically rich medium that addresses a pervasive theme today of "the vulnerability of the human body and the natural world so at peril from human nature."
Encaustic appeals to the Korean-American artist Byron Kim for similar reasons as a medium that is "long-lasting yet so fragile...like the human body in some ways." Furthermore, this transparent molten medium bears tissue-like properties, as well as bulk (encaustic retains over 90 percent of its volume in drying). Thus Kim was inspired to switch, around 1990, from latex paint to encaustic in order to continue his series of Belly paintings that have established his reputation. Making his own paints from beeswax damar varnish, and linseed oil, Kim especially appreciates the early wax-based works of Brice Marden and has occasionally appropriated his techniques. Pouring the encaustic into a latex rubber sheath bulging from the support in a rotund, belly-like manner, Kim has employed a wide range of colors, including such unusual hues as pthalo green-blue.  Kim's humorous subversion of stereotypical concepts of race has also been interpreted as a multicultural critique of pure abstraction as he exaggerates the support, surface, and rectangular shape of traditional non-objective painting by distending its surface or skin. He transforms the unified monochrome fields of Ad Reinhardt, Marden and Robert Ryman, into corporeal/epidermal allusions that reflect sociopolitical concerns and deconstruct notions of abstract art's elitist transcendent universality.
Lisa Corinne Davis employs encaustic both as a direct reference to skin and a rich metaphorical vehicle for communicating her ideas on race, identity, and culture in America. For her large-scale collage Essential Traits #1, Davis, an admirer of Johns, worked with pages from an old American history book, purchased at a garage sale, which she covered with rich layers of brown encaustic. She then selectively embellished the stereotypical multicultural images and text with white ink and colored pencil "in an attempt to update and include stories of peoples often left out of the standard tale of American history." The light-absorbing encaustic provides a skin-like film that seals the text "as if embedded in history and/or hidden, but seen at the same time." Thus the encaustic "allows the protective, fragile, and guarded nature of this subject to be felt, before it is cognitively understood in the reading of the text."
Encaustic also functions as a flesh-like surface in the work of abstract sculptors Mia Westerlund Roosen, Elisa D'Arrigo, and Elaine Lorenz whose organic forms suggest the human body and plant life. Since 1980, Mia Westerlund Roosen has been working with encaustic having experimented with progressively softer materials during the previous four years. Although Roosen had already met Marden and Benglis in the 1960s and was taken with the sensuality of their wax-based work, she did not think it would be viable for her. For ten years, she experimented with various materials like fabric soaked in polyester resin, as well as layers of steel, lead, and copper over concrete or plaster to create a tension between underlying volume and surface. As her work evolved from Post-Minimalist ephemeral process art to more lasting, predetermined, biomorphic forms, Roosen was finally ready to try encaustic. The physical fact of encaustic as "literally skin" enabled her to use it "as a sculpture material and legitimately play with painterly elements without using illusion." Roosen models her work in concrete or plaster pulp over welded steel and mesh armatures; she then sheathes them with a membrane of extremely hot and liquid encaustic made in large metal pails.
Petal Piece I is part of a group based on floral, serial, repeating forms that is a generative "attempt to take a very basic shape O, fold it, repeat it, and cover it with encaustic to make a sensually charged object." The translucent, pinkish hues and mottled surfaces of Petal Piece I are characteristically enhanced with a black undercoat to make the flesh tone richer and more luminous. Furthermore, a frontal view of this work provides a dialogue of interior and exterior form suggestive of female genitalia." Clarabelle is regarded by Roosen as "more comic in nature, a nonsensical object made more eccentric by the vulnerability of its surface and made somewhat surreal for its growing out of a table." Furthermore, "the use of the table form encourages the body's presence literally and metaphorically," possessing a domestic, feminine connotation." For Roosen, the encaustic "has an incredibly strong aura" that "evokes paradoxes of strength and vulnerability, liveliness and decay or a certain well-used roughness." Roosen's sculptures in encaustic and other media are resonant, elemental, organic forms that excite the sensual imagination as they appear to push outward, ripple, and move in various ways. Their expressive colors, textures, forms, and human scale suggest living presences with ambiguous anatomies and evocative surfaces that allow them to function simultaneously as metaphors of human, plant and animal life.
Like Roosen, Elaine Lorenz has created large-scale outdoor pieces which involved working with concrete over a steel armature; the inclusion of live plants addressed human attempts to control and restrict nature. Her use of encaustic began in 1996 as a search, in her words, "for a material whose content was more organic, sensuous, and reinforced the generative forces of nature." Having looked closely at the work of Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and Petah Coyne, she experimented with latex and paper. Nevertheless, she began seeing more and more works which incorporated beeswax in the galleries and attracted both her visual and olfactory senses. Later in 1996, a personal medical crisis prompted her to delve into true encaustic as she coped with the sudden vulnerability of her body. Her work shifted "to focus on the body in an abstract way."
Lorenz constructs her sculptures such as Linkage
with wisteria vines and is inspired by their natural forms. For Lorenz,
the vines were "a perfect metaphor for the emotional quality I wanted
to express; they wrap around, distort and strangle other plants." in the case of Linkage, she combined
several vines, some used as is and others altered while the vines were still green. A woven wire mesh was then pushed into the spaces between the vines to create bulges and impressions of growth against the confinement of the vines. It was coated with a plaster and paper fiber mixture to provide a firm surface for the encaustic skin. Lorenz employs a concentrated, translucent candle-making color which is mixed into the beeswax layered on, and often mixed again on the surface and fused with an electric heat gun. Starting with a deep organ pink color, she lightens it with skin-like layers. Due to its smooth texture, translucent quality, and organic nature, the beeswax serves as a metaphor for flesh as well as other organs of the body. Embodying both the raw, contorted, yet sensual and generative aspects of nature, Linkage refers to genetics and family history, as well as "the fragility and resilience of nature, our bodies, and our relationships,"
Elisa D'Arrigo began using encaustic in 1983 as a fleshy, vulnerable counterpoint to the tough, dry, cracked surfaces of unfired clay. As a sculptor; she was always on the lookout for new materials and consulted Mayer's book for an encaustic recipe. By 1996, when she created Split #5 and Split #6, D'Arrigo was working with stained organic forms made of muslin and acrylic medium over which encaustic is applied as a final surface. Consisting of molten beeswax, damar crystals, and pigment, the encaustic medium is applied with a knife while in a semi-molten state. After cooling it is scraped with a razor blade and buffed with a cloth to achieve a smooth surface. The encaustic functions as the skin of these works and its translucence allows the deep blue staining of the muslin forms to show through, "much as veins would show through human skin." The luscious sheen and delicacy of the wax contrasts with the rough metal stitches of black annealed wire which hold the split halves together -- thus "heightening their provisional nature" and sense of vulnerability and aging." Furthermore, the grouping and gentle nudging of the human-scale biomorphs in Split #5 and Split #6 suggest the regenerative power of relations/connections, as well as the perpetual mutability of nature. The allusive vessel-like forms also evoke the notion of the body as mysterious container and are related to D'Arrigo's background in ceramics.
Interested in creating a surface that is alive, D'Arrigo finds it metaphorically significant that beeswax is the multi-sensory product of living creatures, with an elemental quality, a characteristic smell, and an uncanny ability to seem both liquid and solid. Thus for her, the most important property of encaustic is its visceral ability "to suggest a fleshlike surface, thereby introducing a note evoking the human body, and imparting another layer of meaning to works whose form may, or may not address the body specifically."
Like D'Arrigo, the sculptor Orlando Cuevas initially attracted to encaustic as an alternative to clay. Currently Director of the Division of Cultural Affairs for the City of Jersey City, Cuevas began working in the medium as an undergraduate at New Jersey City University (then Jersey City State College) around 1988. Having seen an article about Edgar Degas and his use of wax, he employed various waxes as a modeling medium since 1985 and painted these works in acrylic. The evolution to encaustic thus seemed natural and also validated by Johns's pioneering works in this medium such as the Flags which broke down boundaries between painting and sculpture. With the assistance of Ralph Mayer's book, Cuevas developed his own encaustic recipes and occasionally manufactured paints. Malleable, sensual, and quick-drying encaustic "has the ability to convey strong emotional ideas" as well as "record a drip or the flow of the paint in ways other mediums cannot." Therefore, encaustic was Cuevas's medium of choice when he created the doll house sculpture In My Father's House There are Many Mansions to commemorate the fifth anniversary of his mother's death. A spiritual woman with deep religious convictions, Cuevas's mother is represented in a collaged photograph in the front window, carving a turkey in her house, symbolic of her home with God. Furthermore, the encaustic, in addition to serving as a vehicle for subjective expression, represents the wax from devotional candles. Rooted in Cuevas's childhood preference for making his own imaginative toys, this work epitomizes the paradoxes of Cuevas's art. It is is at once playful and somber; nostalgic and full of foreboding, folksy and complex with allegorical statements about urban life and his Puerto Rican heritage.
Originally a sculptor, the Japanese-born Tomas Nakada has established his reputation as a painter of intimate, encaustic works that explore the unseen world of cellular structure. After receiving his MFA in 1987 at the San Francisco Art Institute, Nakada combined his interests in photography, painting, science, spirituality, and the human condition. Fascinated with the unusual abstract patterns and textures in photographs of rare skin disorders, Nakada worked at first on a large scale in acrylic. Reducing the size, in 1990, enabled him to focus more clearly on the formal aspects of the lesions and soon precipitated a decision to move deeper into the body to the molecular level. Discovering a transcendent beauty in the DNA double helix, Nakada researches the sources of his imagery through a variety of means, including scientific literature, genetic conferences, and submicroscopic laser photography. The issue of genetic influences on human behavior is one of the main themes of Nakada's work. He is therefore currently drawn to the patterns of protein analysis diagrams which seem to sum up the essence of a person's genetic make-up, like a personality profile. 
In 1989, Nakada started to work with encaustic as a way to build up his paint surface and create texture. The subtle nuances of his oil paint are an appropriate translation of the embryonic, spectral, fluid-suspended matter that inspires such works as Range of Motion.. A final layer of wax, ranging from transparent to a seminal, milky opacity, is floated over the painting's surface as a translucent skin and fused with a propane torch. Enmeshing the pigment, this luminous liquid wax evokes bodily fluids and is bounded by a steel edge frame that provides an iconic presence evoking creation, genetic identity, destiny, and mortality. Resembling cells floating in body fluids, Nakada's encaustic paintings also evoke his island background; born in Okinawa, he grew up in Honolulu and lives in San Francisco.
In her Sub Rosa #3, Sabina Ott simulates the effect of a bruise on skin, employing an image that she has investigated for ten years, the rose, in combination with stripes, grids, dots, and drips, to "convey an emotional body state." A former California resident and now Professor of Art at Washington University in St Louis, Ott began using encaustic in 1988-1989 in a series of works entitled "Material Fictions." The mutability of wax reflected the conceptual meaning of images she created. Ott's sources derive from painting and sculpture, specifically wax models for bronze casting and wax flowers that were made as decorative craft objects. She also was intrigued with the work of Jasper Johns as hybrids of painting and sculpture. Furthermore, the process-oriented art of Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, and Lynda Benglis offered feminine alternatives to traditional oil painting.
Ott works with hot beeswax or micro-crystalline wax melted in a huge pot then ladled into smaller cans with the chosen oil pigment in them. She covers mahogany panels with a layer of wax, that is carved and gouged to create channels and spaces into which more wax is poured to make lines and fields. The carving of the wax creates residue suggestive of flowers or body parts/organs; tile wax-filled lines resemble connective veins and arteries. Part of a series that represents different aspects of the body such as internal organs, skin, and bone, Sub Rosa. #3 is rooted in Ott's appreciation of Gertrude Stein's The World is Round. In this children's book, Rose embarks on a journey that leads to a state of complex self-awareness -- an apt metaphor for Ott's creation of her map-like paintings -- "a tabula rosa of a journey, incorporating references to body and site." Working from images of roses in gardening books and other sources, Ott transforms them into complex symbols associated with iconography, romanticism, beauty, femininity, and spirituality. In her Mater Rosa series of 1991, Ott employed wax to suggest skin, in conjunction with inscribed roses and circles in white and red to evoke milk and blood -- the fluids of female flesh given in pain by Our Lady of Sorrows." Allowing fur the continual addition and subtraction of information, the malleable, mutable encaustic medium has remained ideally suited to Ott's expressive needs as layers are built up -- images, memories, thoughts, and associations "embedded and compounded like the multiple meanings that lie behind each of Ott's roses."
Eric Blum creates non-objective wax-based paintings such as Beautysupply that evokes the sensuality of the human body through color, texture, and its allusive title (a rare choice for Blum who usually numbers his works). Initially a photographer, Blum began to work with beeswax about twelve years ago when he felt a need to paint and was "seduced by the smooth, creamy, confectionery surface with its honeyed scent full of childhood longings." The fact that his own name spelled backwards is "cire," the French word for wax, was another almost mystical sign post for the use of encaustic. As he began to work with wax, Blum discovered its ability to infuse an image, detaching it from the viewer and causing an implosion, thus capturing an energy within a fragile skin that does not respire. Thus Blum's use of wax, a variant of encaustic, became for him "a most effective medium for attempting to describe the ache and insatiability of desire; desire to possess" that which can not be possessed." Blum's Beautysupply features a seed-like oval form in vibrant pinks and reds which rests as a dormant source of energy in the lower two-thirds of the composition as if pulled by gravity. The image is painted in oil and alkyd glazes followed by a layer of poured beeswax that is not burned in. The process is repeated, encasing each layer; thereby diffusing and imparting depth to the organic forms. The translucent wax permeates the painting, allowing one to view many layers at once, each sealing an impulse from that day's work.
Robin Rose's Oliver abstraction Luminous Tissue simultaneously evokes the concepts of skin and slate through the contrast of smooth and impasto areas in shifting black-grey-glue tonalities. Encaustic has been Rose's primary medium since 1978. Studying with Karl Zerbe from 1969-72 at Florida State University, Rose had been encouraged to proceed with his encaustic experiments, finding Pratt's and Fizell's book to be "the holy grail." By 1988, this Washington D.C.-based artist settled into his current practice which involves making his own encaustic medium as well as his own stable armature supports which are linen-lined honeycomb aluminum panels with raw edges that project slightly from the wall. For Rose, the profound appeal of encaustic lies in its quick drying time and the fact that it is the medium most closely aligned with human tissue. As an avant-garde musician he compares the time and duration of sound as similar to that of encaustic drying time, allowing the artist to maintain an intense, trance-like state while working. The multiple layers of encaustic are fused with an iron or torch, providing a final alchemical aspect of the process. In addition to its mystical properties, Rose enjoys the integrated sensory aspects of encaustic: its incense-like smell and unique glow resembling skin. Working on a scale that is related to the center of his body, Rose created Luminous Tissue with a characteristically rich variety of ridges and raised edges that simultaneously suggest sedimentary landscape qualities and keloid-like scars -- "equal parts fugitive, spectral, and corporeal."
Human flesh has also served as the metaphorical inspiration for the encaustic paintings of Ron Ehrlich. Having created self-portraits in this medium in 1991, Ehrlich turned in 1993 to pictographic images of animals, usually horses, to represent parts of his persona. Mixing Dorland's Wax with oil and marble dust be melted and fused them with a blowtorch, scraping the layers to create a weathered, transparent, skin-like surface. The rich, waxy surface, blue color scheme, and ambiguous biomorphic form impart a certain softness, a femininity that is jarred by the masculine resistance of the hard wood support The veiling of the surface with wax creates memories, a sense of the passage of time which reinforces the archetypal aspects of his animal subjects rooted in Jungian notions of the inner life, anima, and collective unconsciousness,"
In recent years, Jonathan Santlofer has reinvented a more traditional conception of the human body through his constructed portraits of artists and art world figures. Occasionally working in the encaustic medium since the mid-70s, Santlofer has drawn inspiration from a confluence of influences such as religious altarpieces, Roman portraits, as well as the early minimal paintings of Brice Marden. He was initially attracted to encaustic as a way to build up thick yet translucent paint surfaces quickly, for purposes of gouging and drawing into the surface of such abstract shaped paintings as Turn of the Century (1987, destroyed in the big Chicago gallery fire of 1989). For his recent mixed media portraits such as Chuck, Santlofer has employed encaustic to convey the sensuality and malleability of skin. He selected Chuck Close for his subject, feeling that it would be interesting to make a portrait of a contemporary artist who, himself, is so associated with the very idea of portraiture at the end of this century. Playing with four levels of space or reality, Santlofer repeated the image of Close in different mediums.
The initial painting, set furthest back, is in encaustic on wood, for which Santlofer uses clear prepared encaustic wax crystals, to which he adds powdered pigment. Evanescent and ghost-like, the encaustic suggests the notion of an image either in resolution or dissolution. Setting the image into a grid, Santlofer evoked the example of the sitter's own portraits. At the next level, Santlofer created an overlapping, realistic oil painting of his subject, a kind of replicated photograph that again suggests the origins of the sitter's work. On top of this is a carved relief hydrocal portrait which serves as a support for a three-dimensional plaster mask cast from Close's face. Santlofer has continued to use encaustic, especially in works on paper, because of its versatility. In Chuck and other works, he has exploited encaustic's unique ability to "suggest both strength and vulnerability" which complement the issues of fame and recognition which haunt his well-known sitters."
Rachel Friedberg's encaustic photocollages of 1980-81 such as Threads, constitute her initial foray into this medium. Having explored a range of collage and assemblage media in the '60s and '70s, she turned exclusively to encaustic as the answer to what she describes as her effort "to find an amorphous space in which I could express both formal and metaphysical possibilities" Friedberg's use was instigated by her appreciation of the flat, matte surfaces of Susan Rothenberg's acrylic horse paintings of the 1970s, as well as her friendship with Kay Walkingstick who was employing a combination of wax and acrylic. Conducting research in the library, Friedberg found a copy of Frances Pratt's book and called her, receiving a cold wax recipe. Joseph Torch, owner of Torch Art Supplies, also supplied her with a classic hot wax formula utilizing beeswax and damar crystals. Making her own paints, Friedberg uses a combination of cold wax and hot wax techniques. Aware of tile work of Jasper Johns, Friedbcrg developed her own approach to encaustic collage in Threads and other works of 1980-81, appropriating imagery, often of children, from books and magazines with which she personally connected. Selecting an image of a sleeping child from a photograph of an urban scene, Friedberg embedded this element into a black luminous field of encaustic traversed by ruled horizontal lines. Reminiscent of grammar school notebooks, these lines were created by tape pulled off to reveal the white gesso ground underneath the nocturnal encaustic field. Friedberg then looped a thin cord along these lines which was fused onto the encaustic surface with a hot air gun. Evoking a feeling of uncharted dreams, the cording suggests both entrapment and support for the vulnerable child -- a characteristically poetic, complex, and ambiguous treatment that reflects the personal, surrealistic vision of Friedberg as mother and artist" No longer employing collage elements, Friedberg has continued to use encaustic as "a visual field unique in its qualities of luminosity and dullness, optically shallow but emotionally deep...a physical entity...where thoughts can be momentarily suspended in an undifferentiated space." Its rich, translucent qualities create a highly textured ground for the inscription/suspension of Friedberg's cryptic, pictographic ciphers of thought, memory, and feeling which express the vulnerability of the human condition -- our psychic isolation."
Michael David's current figurative paintings such as Jackie #9 are rooted in an abiding appreciation of encaustic with which he has been painting for over twenty years. As his self-proclaimed voice, blood, and muscle, encaustic has allowed David to combine a deeply subjective imagery with an improvisational, abstract handling. First learning of encaustic in an undergraduate course at the Parsons School of Design in 1975, David soon discovered the Fayum portraits, as well as the work of Johns and Marden. Working with a variety of waxes over the years, David usually employs a classic recipe of unbleached beeswax, powdered pigment, and damar varnish. Formerly he exploited the medium's ability to cool quickly into a thick, clay-like material as an ideal way to rapidly embed and rework abstract iconic imagery and his own pre-history of process -- a plastic metaphor for his own "combination of rough-hewn physicality and intellectual hunger."
Now Michael David pours the encaustic medium, 40 pounds at a time, in tandem with a partner. This process of "a shared, eroticized dance," informed by the danger of David's own flesh being burned, is particularly appropriate for the creation of the female nude. The development of this subject paralleled David's divorce from his wife in the early-mid 1990s. Coming to terms with his personal history with women, David chose a model, Jackie, whose androgynous quality later reminded him of how he might look in a female guise. Although nude and vulnerable, she stands a foot larger than life-size, calm, with fixed gaze and in almost Christ-like composure. Her mysterious fleshy presence emerges from the creative process of balancing and pouring the transparent molten wax This soft wax membrane (which will sweat and give off a scent in hot weather) becomes both the skin of the painting's surface and its subject as traditional distinctions between figure and ground, abstraction and representation are blurred. Veiled in layers of translucent wax, the model is frozen in time yet seemingly breathing and alive.
Another artist who has recently employed encaustic to explore the human condition through figurative imagery is Lynda Benglis. Returning to this medium after an almost twenty-year hiatus, she created the sensual Torso II. The unusual combinations of materials -- hemp threaded through wax -- reflects Benglis's ongoing avid experimentation with process and media. The prominent navel brings to mind Benglis's earliest encaustic works whereas the torque of the torso may be compared to her organic metallized knots of ca. 1990 and her desire to move painting off the wall. Nevertheless, Benglis's next extended foray into encaustic in 1993-1994 was inspired primarily by her experiences of landscape and environment
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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11
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